You’ve seen the commercials. A fan inside the 49ers Locker room giving San Francisco its halftime speech before the guy runs out on the field with Coach Jim Harbaugh… or perhaps you remember the little girl asking Ray Lewis at a press conference what his favorite color is. Well, thanks to Visa, the next lucky fan will be riding with John Madden in his “Cruiser” to watch an NFL game with the Hall of Famer next season. And today, I had a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at that experience, and spent the afternoon talking football with an NFL Legend.
The obvious question this time of year, that I posed to Madden, was who is his SuperBowl pick. Without hesitation, he said the 49ers, followed by a chuckle. “I think the 49ers chances are great,” Madden explained, “They're playing very well right now and it's important to be peaking at the right time.”
He went on to say that in the playoffs, teams can try to get fancy. But he thinks the 49ers have revealed what they can do, that they wouldn’t have held anything back against the Packers. And Madden put it rather simply, “you’ve got to be able to run and stop the run and out of all the teams in the tournament, they (49ers) run ball the best and have the best offensive line and I think they stop the run the best.”
And according to the former NFL coach, San Francisco also has one of the best coaches in the game right now in Jim Harbaugh.
“He has the right feel for the game and his players. And just the way he does it, coming in his first year and getting to the [NFC] Championship, and those weren't his players, but he took an interest in them and had to take that group and get them to play together, and took them to the Championship (game). I think that's one of the great coaching jobs in the history of the NFL.
“And then this year carrying it over and starting with (Alex) Smith and then playing (Colin) Kaepernick at the right time and now it’s paying off. It’s all the moves and things he has done, that I think are borderline brilliant.”
Brilliance aside, Madden just doesn’t think Atlanta has enough time to prepare for San Francisco. He explained to me that the Falcons are at a disadvantage in getting enough “looks” this week in practice at what the 49ers can do. Although he did note that playing in the Georgia Dome, in front of that crowd, it’s not going to be easy for the 49ers.
As for what Madden will be watching for on Sunday from his compound in Pleasanton (which looks like a movie theater with his theater-sized big screen flanked by three full-size TVs on either side): standout play from Tony Gonzalez, the 49ers offensive line staying consistent and if the Falcons can find a way to tackle Kaepernick.
Madden watched Gonzalez play basketball at Cal back in 1997 and he said after just seeing his athleticism on the hardwood, he would have picked Gonzalez Number 1 in the NFL Draft. Madden went on to say that Gonzalez is getting even better, the older he gets. He said he sees no reason for the tight end to retire right now, but he did say if the Falcons went on to win the Super Bowl that he could understand how that’d be a nice way to go out.
As for the 49ers offensive line, Madden kept it short and sweet, “best in the league.”
And perhaps my favorite part of the 30-minute talk with Madden was when he broke down what he sees from Kaepernick on film. He said the young quarterback has had success with the 49ers because they are running an offense that suits him, one Kaepernick is familiar with from his high school and college days. But then Madden broke down his strengths.
“He is a good passer with velocity and accuracy and he puts a spin on it. You start there, but now in addition, he can run, and in addition, he can run really fast.”
Madden explained that the 49ers competition is underestimating just how fast Kap is.
“You can tell by the angles they take. You know that they are good players, but when running down the sideline the guy doesn’t understand his speed yet to figure it out yet [the angle to tackle him].”
Naturally, when you converse with a legend, you can go on and on sharing the insight you learned, so stay tuned Raiders fans… I also tackled Oakland’s issues with the Hall of Famer, from Dennis Allen to the current state of the Raiders to their future home.